The Teach-Off – My reaction to coursebooks & Uncount Nouns

The following was originally my response to Varinder’s account of Coursebook Day 4 of the Teach-Off.

I had observed the second half of the class where Varinder was focusing on Countable and Uncountable nouns from the coursebook Global Intermediate, and was very honoured to be privy to the wonderful rapport she had with the students and the enthusiasm with which she taught the class.

After the lesson, Varinder and I had a discussion regarding the relevance of that particular grammar point and the way it was dealt with in the coursebook. Varinder mentions this discussion in her post, and this was my response.

As the response grew longer, and I grew more passionate about what I had to say,

I decided that perhaps this deserves a blogpost of its own after all.

Here is my response:

How on earth can money be uncountable???

First of all, let me first clarify a couple of things.

The issue at hand has nothing to do with being a Dogmetician or any teaching methodology for that matter.
It is about attitudes and views on grammar, on how languages are learnt (SLA), and on what is learnable and what is useful/relevant for the learners.

Taking the Dogmetician hat off and putting on my Grammar-fanatic linguist hat…

Over time, as we move from grammar translation through into the communicative approach, there has been more and more focus on communicative competence and the communication skills that enable such competence.

Meanwhile, on the SLA front, research started to show that presenting lists of discrete items of language in a linear fashion simply does not coincide with how the brain learns languages.

Language learning is emergent, feedback sensitive and non-linear (see e.g. Michael Long, Vygotsky, Krashen, etc.)

Moreover, spending an hour on generalised rules about countable and uncountable nouns when there are just so many exceptions to the rule might not be the best use of classroom time. As you said in class, ‘A lot of it can be used in both.’

In fact, many coursebook writers are now trying to get away from labelling them countable and uncountable nouns as the labels are a misnomer in themselves.
Some writers now use the terms ‘count’ and ‘mass’, while others choose to use ‘count’ and ‘uncount’ nouns, preferring to deal with how the noun in question is referring to an idea of an abstract mass, or an individual single entity.

Moreover, the design of the task in the coursebook had students filling in the gaps as follows:

Fill in the gaps with ‘countable’, ‘uncountable’, or ‘countable and uncountable’.

1. ________ can have the plural form.
2. ________ cannot go with ‘a’ or ‘an’.
3. ________ can go with ‘the’.
4. ________ can go with ‘some’ and ‘any’.


Now, I don’t have that much of an issue with numbers 1 or 2. They are fairly straightforward rules (aside from the fact that we can all think of many exceptions of nouns that are always in the plural but not necessarily countable e.g. ‘news’, ‘studies’).

But my gripe is with questions 3 and 4, to which the answers are ‘countable and uncountable’.

By making students fill in those gaps, the task is misleading the students into thinking that either ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’ can go into the gap.
Although the answer at the end is ‘both’, by flagging this up, the students is made to sit up and take note of how ‘some’ and ‘any’ is used with countable and uncountable nouns.

Now, memory works in strange ways.
It is known that students will not remember all that is in the grammar exercise.
But what they will remember is that there was some issue with ‘some’ or ‘any’ used with countable or uncountable nouns.
This creates doubt in their minds when they are choosing to use nouns with ‘some’ or ‘any’.
Voila, we’ve created a problem where there wasn’t one before!

Now, we could argue that some students might have a problem with ‘some’ and ‘any’ before the exercise, and therefore the exercise serves to clarify the issue for those students.

Sure, but if these are only a portion of students, why not wait for the problem to arise in conversation, and then through the use of correction and scaffolding, the teacher can bring attention to this, solving it quickly, in context? This makes it more relevant and definitely more memorable to the student.

.
Taking the grammar-fanatic hat off, and putting my sociolinguist hat on…
ELF (English as a lingua franca) is not a methodology or approach. ELF is a global phenomenon that is happening all around us, a phenomenon that changes the reasons and the purpose for learning English. This is turn affects what and how we teach.

Apart from the very important fact that the misuse of countable and uncountable nouns is not going to alter meaning drastically in most cases, their use have also taken on special meaning with ELF research into NNS-NNS (non-native speaker to non-native speaker) communication.

Here’s an example:
The material in Global today said,
We don’t use ‘the’ with abstract nouns when we’re talking in general.
e.g. Love is important.
NOT The love is important.

But in extensive analysis of ELF use, it has been found that expert speakers of English as a lingua franca are using the articles ‘the’ with abstract nouns in order to give it emphasis.
e.g. The love is important; The life is good in Italy.

Whichever hat I choose to put on, at the end of the day, my point is this:
Using countable and uncountable nouns wrongly is not going to affect the meaning of what the speaker is saying. At an intermediate level of English (which these learners are at), there are lots of other skills and language (lexico-grammar) that would make a huge difference to their communicative abilities and their communicative competence.
This grammar area is certainly not one of them.

And if learners think they want it because that’s what their past learning experiences have taught them, then I think it is time to have an informed discussion with our learners with regards to how language are learnt, and the relevance of what they are learning.

Perhaps therein lies my issue with course books.

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